By Radhika Oltikar May. 02, 2020
A few days into last year’s lockdown, I fell into the liberating routine of hanging around in my nightwear, eating junk, and binge-ing Netflix into the wee hours. That’s when my spirits nose-dived. I was anxious all the time. I knew I had to have a self-care routine, but where would I start?
When the nation went into lockdown, my istriwala stopped coming. As did Shanta bai and Nandini, my cook. For the first few days, I diligently ironed my clothes, but gradually, this task fell by the wayside, drowned as it was under the seemingly never-ending, far more important chores of cleaning and cooking.
Soon, I was wearing mismatched salwar-kurtas. “Isn’t it liberating to wear any old salwar under your kurta?” I posted on Facebook. Most of my women friends responded with a resounding “YES!” Then came the “no make-up selfie challenge.” I participated enthusiastically, putting up a selfie in which I sported unruly, unplucked eyebrows, wild hair, and a face totally bereft of make-up.
Then the lockdown was extended. The shared bonhomie of staying in, the “we’re in this together!” sentiment started to flag a little. The days blended into each other, identical as they were. My spirits nose-dived when my apartment building was placed under quarantine because two of the residents had tested Covid-positive. The disease was no longer out there somewhere. It had literally reached my door – a door I could no longer even exit.
A weird kind of claustrophobia took hold of my heart. I didn’t really feel safe, although I was cooped up in my house 24/7. What if I was infected and didn’t even know it? Damn, I just sneezed. Was it a sign?
Everything else started looking trite in the face of these “existential” questions. I started ignoring the various challenges I was tagged in on social media. They just seemed too frivolous. “What’s even the point?” became my dominant emotion towards most things.
My state of mind filtered down to the way I started dressing. I started choosing comfort over form, lounging the whole day in my nightwear – loose fitting kurta-pajamas, and sometimes even that beloved garment of Mumbai housewives, the “gown.” A lot of my women friends admitted to doing the same. In the beginning, it was definitely convenient: A quick shower followed by the same few nightclothes on a rotation basis. I would then rush through my chores and settle in for a Netflix binge while eating crap straight out of the box, which would sometimes continue until the wee hours. I would then wake up proportionately late the next morning, not really feeling well-rested because my Circadian rhythm was so off, only to rinse and repeat the same unhealthy cycle.
I didn’t really feel safe, although I was cooped up in my house 24/7.
After about a week of doing this, I started noticing a marked change in my mood. My already flagging enthusiasm touched an all-time low. Getting started on even necessary chores like cooking and cleaning became difficult; I had to really push myself. All the junk I was eating made me feel bloated and uneasy. Also, I started feeling like a slob. I felt so unattractive that I didn’t even want to look at myself in the mirror. It wasn’t just because of the overgrown eyebrows and the grey that was showing in my hair – it was the feeling of decay and neglect I was wearing in the form of my nightgown. The neglect of my physical and mental well-being by my own self. That’s when the story started to turn.
It is often said that the reason we invest in our physical appearance is because we are concerned with how we are perceived by others. About how we present ourselves to the world. This is only amplified by the media, which is constantly bombarding us with new ways to make our skin whiter and waists smaller. While it is undeniably true that we all crave the acceptance, even admiration, of others, this lockdown has made me realise that it also has a lot to do with how we feel in the process. When we take the effort to look our best — or at the very least, presentable — we automatically feel better about ourselves, and by extension, our surroundings. And never has this mattered more than during the present lockdown.
In these unprecedented times, our life has never been this monotonous and yet so uncertain. Everything that we had hitherto taken for granted is in jeopardy, and there seems no definite light at the end of the tunnel. Nobody knows how long we will have to stay in lockdown, what life will look like even when the lockdown is lifted…our whole future is marked by uncertainty.
Which is why self-care is important, rather crucial, during a volatile time like the present. With the constant Covid-19-related barrage of news that we have to face every single day, anxiety and depression can take root. Establishing a routine, especially for physical self-care is invaluable – for it is accompanied by a feeling of control and agency, when so many aspects of our lives are now beyond your control. It grounds and calms you.
I set about establishing a new routine for myself. Earlier, I’d postpone taking a bath as long as I could, which made me feel sluggish and dirty for the better part of the day. Now I make it a point to be bathed and dressed by 10 am. This small change has done wonders to setting the tone of my day.
Everything that we had hitherto taken for granted is in jeopardy, and there seems no definite light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s not even that I’m dressing in party wear: simple, properly ironed cotton kurtas with (matching! very important!) salwars is all it takes. I take the time to apply body lotion after my bath: this small act of self-care makes me feel luxurious and loved. A spray of my favourite perfume, matching earrings, a little bindi, and I feel energised and ready to tackle my day and the inevitable monotony of my chores.
What my epiphany made me realise is that when we take the effort to set and follow a timetable; to invest in self-care; to eat tasty, nutritious and visually appealing meals; to make time for soul-nourishing activities that bring us joy, we send ourselves a very important message: You are loved, you are cherished, you matter. It makes us feel seen by our own selves. What can be more life-affirming than that?
Is the future still uncertain? Yes, it is. Do I still have moments of anxiety, especially when I read the news? Sure I do. But by taking charge of the elements of my life that are still under my control, I feel a sense of empowerment. My days are no longer marked by despondency. I feel my natural well-being returning.
Never before have I spent so much time with myself as during this lockdown. Doesn’t it then make sense to take the effort to nourish myself in both body and soul, to feel attractive for myself? After all, I am the most important person in my life.
Radhika Oltikar is a freelance academic editor, translator and writer based in Mumbai. She loves cuddling with her cat, a good love story and day-dreaming, almost exactly in that order. She’s constantly correcting people’s grammar but only in her head, unless she’s paid to do it.